Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bait and Switch


A number of years ago, I accompanied my husband to a conference in San Francisco. During those pre-kids days, I would typically explore on my own during his meetings and then have dinner together. That time, for some reason, I decided to attend the orientation for families and heard a spiel by a fantastic walking-tour guide. He knew his facts, he presented them in interesting ways, and he was funny. I signed up.

I showed up the next morning, ready to spend a few exciting hours wandering a
round San Francisco, learning about the secret history and listening to a master story-teller.

But he wasn't there. He had sent someone else. This person mumbled and swallowed the second half of every other sentence and didn't make the walk interesting at all. I felt sorry for her but I also felt cheated. I paid money for a product only to be given something else.

With all the focus on " hooking" agents and editors with the first pages/paragraphs/lines, a lot of writers have polished and re polished the openings till they sparkle. What I wonder is if the rest of our books live up to the expectations set by the opening.

I have overhauled my book so many times that I feel I've given as much scrutiny to my middle and end as I have the beginning. Recently, just as an experiment, I started reading my book in the middle. I was relieved that it didn't feel rushed or meh-worthy. Of course I am not unbiased, despite the objectivity I managed to acquire by having left the book aside for a long time, but to the best of my knowledge and ability, I'm not doing a bait-and-switch.

To my writer friends: how do you overcome the temptation of focusing too much on the beginning and not enough for the rest? Or is it even a temptation?


15 comments:

Domey Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, I actually do exactly what you do. I often read my book starting from different points to see how it feels. I also usually have to do one or two sessions where I read through the whole thing in one sitting, sometimes out loud. It's a tiring experience and my throat can really hurt afterwards, but I've found it necessary to really see it all as one piece. The middle is my favorite parts of a book, so I care about it a lot!

tanita davis said...

Because I am not a person who believes much in conventional wisdom, I don't actually believe in that rule about how your first three paragraphs have to be God's gift to fiction. I mean, I do my best to begin a book in a way which encourages people to read on, but the things that turn me off of reading a book don't have to do with paragraph count, but more with smarmy characters, cliched conversation or speech with patois, descriptions that focus too much on This Is A Sexy Guy/Girl, Please Note sorts of things - those are what make me close a book. Not the lack of a perfectly crafted first few paragraphs.

I think I force myself to work extra hard on endings, because I struggle so much to get to them and because leaving a book is so hard. I want the reader to feel the same reluctance to read the last paragraph. That's what matters to me.

Irene Latham said...

Reading from different start-points is a smart way to handle the potential problem.... that's how I choose books in the bookstore! Just open to some random page and start reading. If it interests me, I open to another spot and read a paragraph or two. Still got me? I buy it. (very rarely do I even read the first page when selecting a book)

scott g.f.bailey said...

All I care about when writing the beginning of a story is if the writing is engaging and active. The idea that you should know "what the book is about" by the end of the first or second page is utter rubbish. My idea is to take the reader by the hand and say, "Hey, let's go have fun" and establish the reader's trust that I have the technique and the imagination to make good on that promise of fun. Nothing else at all needs to happen. Except, maybe, for the story to be grounded somehow in the world of the story.

I also like to open my novels to random spots and start reading. If I find I can't put it down and want to read to the end, then I'm sure I've done a pretty good job.

Yat-Yee said...

Your comments are made of awesome juice, topped with awesome sauce. Not buying into conventional wisdom when it is clearly inadequate is so necessary. And it's heartening to hear that not everyone is rushing headlong into some tiny hole based on half-baked advice. I shouldn't be surprised, I know, since most writers I know are sensible and smart people with a strong nose for detecting nonsense.


I'm glad I'm not the only one who starts in the middle or the end. Reading out loud is taxing, and I haven't done it from beginning to end. Tanita: I love your thought about how you want your readers to find it as hard to leave the book as you.

Thanks.

Bish Denham said...

I've wondered about this myself. Our society seems to get easily distracted by sparkle and glitter overlooking something plain that might have as much or more substance.

Reading from the middle is a wonderful idea!

Yat-Yee said...

I'm with you, Bish. The flashy and sparkly attract so much attention when the quiet voice may offer the most wisdom or joy or meaning.

Laurel Garver said...

I know exactly what you mean. I seem to naturally struggle with openings as it is. One of the many rewrites of my novel opening, I realized I'd made the character unrecognizable from the girl in the rest of the story, just trying to make a "cool opening." One of those attempts at an opening I did end up making into flash fiction and got it published. So there's always that option for really zingy false starts. :-)

Yat-Yee said...

There you go, some good that comes from it!

I, too, have done the same thing a few years ago, changing someone to fit a notion of a great opening.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I agree with you. So much focus is put on that first chapter, but the rest needs to be just as strong.

I will always try my darnedest to never pull a bait and switch.

MG Higgins said...

Openings are the toughest for me, so I do spend more time on them than I should. Then they get muddled. I think I'm one of those writers who start their stories in the wrong place.

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for your comments. Melissa: I'm curious. Do you think that openings are the toughest for you because of what you've read about its utmost importance or if they just are?

jbchicoine said...

I've had more difficulty with getting a story off an running--getting to the meat of the story. Perhaps I focus too much on set up and trying to establish the viability of the relationships. The prose is good, but my pace falters.

My middles usually move right along...it really is hard to be objective, though--after reading it for the millionth time. Hopefully I've cut and polished just enough...

MG Higgins said...

I'm glad I read your current post so I'd read this post again and see your question, my answer to which is: both. Whatever inherent opening weaknesses I have are made worse by the pressure that openings should be awesome.

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for coming back to address this question. Yeah, the added pressure is definitely not needed.